Interview with Fred Harrison, journalist, author, economic consultant, and campaigner for social justice
I came to London as a young reporter seeking a career in Fleet Street journalism. I went on to Oxford University to study Philosophy, Economics and Politics, then to Birkbeck College in London to do an MSc in Politics and Sociology, before returning to journalism. I travelled the world on assignments, but my heart was in campaigning for economic justice. I have written a dozen books, including one that gave Tony Blair a 10-year warning of the crisis that exploded in 2008 – which he ignored. Now I work with civil society groups and politicians that are searching for solutions that yield permanent benefits to society.
You do work for the Land Research Trust, what is it?
It’s a charity that bases its educational initiatives on the need for public policies that enhance the welfare of the nation. The challenge facing the Trust is awesome: identify the creative ways to break through the barriers that deny people their right to a decent life.
Who has been your greatest influence?
An American journalist. Henry George wrote a book called Progress and Poverty. That was back in the 19th century. To this day, the book remains one of the best-sellers on the subject of economics.
George’s point was simple. If we fail to reclaim the commons for the benefit of humanity, we cannot redesign our social systems to serve everyone’s best interests. It was the privatisation of the commons that nurtured the irresponsible forms of behaviour that are the root cause of today’s problems. In one of my books, I call that behaviour the culture of cheating. The solution is simple to implement: get rid of existing taxes, and fund public services out of the Rents we all help to create. But the culture of cheating that directs our societies is driven by what economists call “free riding” – living off the Rents that other people labour to produce.
What is the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Stop flogging a dead horse. I gave that advice to myself in 2002. I had spent 10 years commuting to Moscow, St Petersburg and Novgorod, trying to help post-Soviet Russia create an ethical economy. Yes, they needed market economics, but no, they did not need the property rights and the financial architecture that disrupt people’s lives. I continued to fly back and forth until, one day, I stopped and gave myself that advice. I felt that Russia was being sold out to the rich and powerful. However, my advice did not mean give up, it meant search for more creative solutions.
What is your greatest professional or personal accomplishment?
I think I am in the process of achieving my best personal accomplishment – the book I am currently writing. Back in the 1980s, when I quit journalism, I told myself that one day I would write the ultimate story. Well, I find myself engaged in writing that story right now. It’s about the fate of humanity.
As an advocate for ethical solutions, what advice would you give to a young creative student today?
Dig deep before acting. Otherwise, your solutions may turn out to be co-opted by the forces that created the problems in the first place.
Take the case of the Welfare State. The original architects of that system designed the correct financial solution back in 1910. But they were defeated by what I call the culture of cheating. As a consequence, the reformers who try to solve society’s problems keep failing. Housing is an example. Despite all kinds of twists and policy turns, we are no further forward in creating the solution to unaffordable housing than we were in 1910. So, my advice to the next generation of activists is to pause. Take stock of the history of the problem that engages your attention, and reflect on WHY it has persisted despite all of the good intentions and creative power of generations of reformers. Why, for example, despite the expenditure of billions of pounds and the energy of armies of creative students through five generations, is a simple challenge like providing enough homes at affordable prices still a problem? So, identify the root causes in the first place, rather than dishing up more palliatives that fail. Root causes require creative solutions!
How does your Creative Conscience show itself through your work?
My conscience won’t let me retire! I am no spring chicken…I ought to be enjoying a leisurely life, but I cannot give up. Humanity is in a dark place, and it is only by reawakening and mobilising the creative spirit in all of us that we will be able to mandate an authentic democracy. Otherwise, we will continue to dig ourselves deeper into a large black hole. So I keep campaigning for reform to the way governments raise their revenue. That sounds boring – tax reform! But tax policies are the gateway to the practical solutions. They mediate our lives in unseen ways. They are at the interface between a wonderful life that we would all be able to share, and the apocalypse that otherwise awaits humanity.